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Save Some for Later: Continuing the Christmas Momentum


Christmas Momentum


There are only a few days left until the biggest day of the year in the church. Christmas Eve is here and with it comes a flurry of activity. Music is being rehearsed, messages are being written, candles are being pulled from the closet, and every little detail is being mulled over with a fine toothed comb.


It’s not news that Christmas presents our greatest opportunity to reach those who might not normally be with us in weekly worship. Many churches work hard to raise the bar on Christmas Eve. It’s one of the most joyous and exciting times of the year, so upping the ante on creativity, music, message and more only makes sense.


I love Christmas worship. It’s easy to go all out. It’s also easy to work so hard in preparation for Christmas that we have nothing left for the days that follow.


If Christmas Eve is one of the high points on the christian calendar, the Sunday after probably ranks as one of the lowest where creativity is concerned. We charge so hard toward December 24th, that we simply have nothing left for the Sunday following. Many of us even take the next weekend off to rest and be with our families. Of course that’s not all bad, but our best opportunity can easily be squandered if we’re not careful.


The potential to reach new people on Christmas is thrilling. With all of the extra effort we put into the big day, visitors are bound to get inspired at some level. If we’re done our due diligence, when our C&E crowd shows up for their yearly visit, if it all goes right, they may just be intrigued enough to come back the following week.


I can remember one Christmas Eve where a family member who didn’t regularly attend church said to me, “Wow, is this what it’s like here all the time? This isn’t what I expected to experience at a church.” Of course, I knew that if he returned just a few days later, the experience would be less than stellar, and not just because it’s not as polished.


When it comes to this season,  we rarely ever save anything for later. The weeks following Christmas Eve are as important if not more in hooking those who are curious about engaging (or re-engaging) church. When someone comes to our well-designed, well-thought out Christmas Eve experience, our under-designed, minimal effort weeks following can only serve to solidify the “oh never mind, this is what worship is really like” mentality.

It doesn’t have to be that way! With a little pre-planning and some extra attention to creativity, the weeks following Christmas can continue whatever momentum we’ve established with Christmas Eve.


A pastor friend and I have been meeting for several weeks to partner on post Christmas worship. While it won’t have all of the bells and whistles that Christmas Eve will, we have creative moments infused throughout the experience. From original animation, to tactical take-away objects;  interactive moments, to a very powerful metaphor;  the post worship experience will be one that should be memorable and meaningful. Best of all, it should keep the bar raised creatively, and will feed into the next series that has been given the usual branding and production efforts.


While there aren’t weeks left to develop and implement a grand plan, there is still time to create something worth coming back to. Assuming that your Christmas is planned (or mostly planned), what can you do make the most of weeks to come?


I’m always amazed at what a short brainstorming session with a few like minded creative folks can generate. I’d encourage you to huddle and see what can happen!


Have a blessed Christmas! And may the creativity continue to flow for weeks to come.











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How NOT to Think of Screens in Worship



Screens In Worship


Screens- many of us use them every week in worship. In the last decade, churches large and small have embraced visual technology to the point where they’ve almost become standard fixture along side pews, organs and altar tables. But do we really understand how to use them properly?


When I began my work as a media minister 16 years ago at a large well-known church in Ohio, leaders were just beginning to think about using screens in worship. For more than half of those years, my focus was mostly on convincing pastors, musicians and laypeople that screens had a place in the church. Things shifted several years ago. The the majority of people I speak to at seminars and in my consultation work have installed screens and are now trying to figure out why they haven’t magically transformed everything about worship. The fundamental problem is that we don’t fully understand the medium.


If we’re honest about it, many of us installed screens so that we could get rid of our hymnals. The funny thing about that is that most of the time, we hang on to the printed hymnals and the screen is just a repeat of a technology we’ve had at our disposal in worship for ages.


Of course, there is a segment within the population of the church thinks that the page is mightier than the fabric. In other words, the hymnal is seen as more holy or sacred than the screen. We end up providing both options to keep everyone happy.


At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if hymnals are present or not. Truth is, the screen is underutilized and is often misused when we think of it as an enormous page-less book of songs.


The basic problem is that we treat the screen as if it’s a giant piece of paper. We put everything that used to be in the hymnal on it; we project bible verses, sermon points, and bulletins (announcements) on it; and the screen ultimately becomes a medium of support rather than one of transformative interpretive communication. Beyond random nature footage, out of focus lights, free floating particles, and other holy blobs of color, we are rarely intentional about the use of images on our screens.


The screen is NOT a giant piece of paper! A better metaphor for the screen is that of a canvas where we can paint powerful pictures that draw people in at a heart level. Image is an interpretive medium, with the power to help people see “more” than they otherwise could. The screen is like stained glass that we can change out every week.


We live in an image hungry, screen obsessed culture. From smart phones, to tablet devices; giant flat screen TVs, to movie screens; image is all around us – and we love it.


A 2005 study revealed that 65% of people are visual learners. The same study found that the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text, and that 90% of information that comes to the brain is visual. Visual learning improves learning and retention by 400%.


Since image is the native language of the brain, it actually takes more mental energy to process and convert text into images than it does to simply take images and interpret their meaning. We also tend to have a more difficult time retaining what we read versus what we see.


When used properly, the screen is an incredible catalyst for growth. It can improve learning, create deep moments of connection and it greatly increases retention. The right images, when given the proper context, have the ability to lock a truth into our minds for a lifetime. When those truths take hold, they lead to personal faith development and a desire to change the world through missional action.


Here are 5 ways you can use the screen to be more visual in worship:

  1. Visual scripture – Rather than putting text on the screen when scripture is read, try using a single image that captures the story.
  2. Visual Points – Instead of typing characters on the screen, what are visuals that can say the same thing in the native language of our brains?
  3. Show, don’t just tell – If you’re telling a great story, grab an image (or images) and show it as you’re telling the story.
  4. Use b-roll – B-roll is the technical term for the footage you see running in the background during a news report that shows the scene where the news took place. I’ve seen pastors effectively use everything from an Olympic snowboard race to people on a mission trip run in the background in the background during sermons.
  5. Use the screen as a backdrop – Like in the theater, use the screen to create a scene.This works well for biblical and other types of storytelling.


What can you do this week in worship to engage and inspire the mind by painting pictures that will last a lifetime?


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7 Lessons I learned in 2013

7 lessons

2013 has been a year of rebuilding here at Midnight Oil. I’ve largely been out of pocket in the trenches, and plan to relaunch with more gusto in 2014. That Said, 2013 has been a year full of valuable lessons. Here are 7 things I’ve learned in 2013:

1.) If you sow enough seeds, and you tend to them over a long enough period of time, you will eventually see them grow. Sometimes in huge ways. Fight the urge to give up, and you just may see your God-sized dreams come true.

2.) While there are some downsides to loyalty, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Loyalty can lead to pain, let down, and other unsavory things, but it can also create great/unexpected partnerships, reward, continual/repeating opportunities, as well as new opportunities.

3.) Opportunity is everywhere. Not every opportunity is a good fit. Be yourself and the right things will take hold.

4.) Never say never (or allow yourself to think it). Amazing things have happened in the last year that I could have never fathomed; things I would have thought impossible. Don’t limit God’s possibilities for your mission, ministry and life.

5.) Friendship cannot be earned; it can only be given. Trying to earn it will only drive you nuts. You can’t earn someone’s acceptance through any number of well intended acts/words/favors etc.

6.) Be open to contingencies. Sometimes we get locked into one idea of how things should play out. I’m learning that if you don’t force your will on a situation/opportunity, it can evolve into something equally good, but different than what you originally imagined.

7.) Don’t stop visioning! There will always be more to learn, but you can get to a place where it feels like you’ve built everything and the work is basically done. When you turn on the autopilot, let things coast, don’t pay quite as much attention to where you’re headed, you lose more than you think. This fall I’ve been teaching a lot more, doing more consulting, and mentoring around the use of metaphor in worship. Articulating that vision, refining it, and looking at it through new eyes has me feeling more excited than I have in a long time. When you stop visioning, your leadership dulls, and those who look to you for inspiration also lose something along the way.

I hope 2013 has been a year that has made you better as well.


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Making Easter Last Beyond Easter


Easter. It’s a well-known fact that it’s one of the annual great opportunities to reach people who normally don’t attend worship on a regular basis. Statistics show while attendance goes way up on Easter, the spike is often short-lived and numbers revert soon after the big day is over. Such an opportunity should not be squandered with the “same old, same old.”

We’ve been designing worship for fifteen years and every year we face the Easter challenge. For us, it’s been always been difficult to find new and fresh ways to creatively and visually present the story. Once you get past all of the standard imagery of empty tombs, crosses, and lilies, where do you go? Is it possible to create powerful worship for Easter that inspires, retains and even transforms the influx of visitors that will walk through our doors on that special Sunday morning?

Telling the story through metaphor

ButterflyConsider metaphor. Metaphor allows us to tell stories in a ways that connect with the everyday experiences of individuals, believer and nonbeliever alike. We’ve come to define metaphor as a tangible way to express an abstract story, thought, or idea. Metaphor allows us to make the foreign familiar. It puts the gospel into everyday language both oral and visual.

Metaphor is sometimes perceived as an advertising industry buzzword that has little or no place in worship. Those who fail to explore the power of communication that comes through metaphor fail to understand that it was the exclusive method of Jesus’ public ministry.

Mark 4 relates a story from the early part of Jesus’ public ministry, in which he tells the parable of the sower. It’s a long parable, the longest in the Gospels (vv. 3-9). Afterward, when the crowds had left and the disciples were alone with Jesus, they revealed to him that they had no clue what he had been saying. He took the time to explain the entire parable to them, actually spending more time on the explanation than he had on the parable itself (vv. 10-20).

What is really interesting is what happens next. Instead of concluding that such a creative presentation of the Good News didn’t work, and returning to the religious style he had learned in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), he continued to speak in parables, telling the parables of lamp on the stand (vv. 21-25), the growing seed (vv. 26-29), and the mustard seed (vv. 30-32). He was on a roll!

The best moment comes in verses 33 and 34: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”

Parables were Jesus’ exclusive public style! He didn’t simply use parables as an alternative for the dumb ones in the crowd. Metaphorical teaching was his only public method. Jesus understood that to communicate ideas with effectiveness he had to present his teaching in a means that made sense to his audience. Our audiences today aren’t any different. People listen best when spoken to in a familiar language. This is the essence of metaphor.

Applying a metaphor to an Easter story

For many, the idea of an omniscient deity sending his only son to earth to die for the sins of humankind, only to be resurrected from the dead, can be rather difficult to grasp. Through metaphor, we can frame the story with familiar objects, settings, and experiences that make the story easier to understand.

A few years ago we began brainstorming metaphors for an upcoming Easter season. We were focusing on John 20:1-18. In the story Mary returns to the tomb on Sunday morning, distraught that Jesus’ body has been removed. After encountering two angels, she turns toward who she believes is the gardener and pleads with him to tell her where the body of her Lord has been taken. He responds by calling out her name, revealing to Mary that he is in fact Jesus. Overjoyed, she cries out “Rabboni” (“teacher”) then, we inferred, reaches out to embrace him.

Some might say Jesus’ response was a bit harsh. He responds to her affection with, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the father.”

Why were his first words to push Mary away? Was he still the Rabboni, even after his death? After much discussion, we began to get excited with the idea that Jesus was telling Mary to let go of what she formerly knew of Jesus. No longer just the earthly man she had known, now he is the risen Christ.

Implicit in Jesus’ statement to Mary is the human tendency to try to hold on to our experiences of God. Call it “camp high,” if you will. We have a fear of losing our awareness of a connection with God, or what some even perceive as losing God or having our connection invalidated. It is ironic that for many, the very fact of grasping onto these memories devalues them. Faith is about living in the daily presence of God. It is through a mutual journey toward the cross that our connection with God is daily renewed. We must be willing to let go of former experiences, no matter how powerful, and continually redefine what it means to be a follower at every stage of our life.

Further, faith for Christians is a communal experience. Our faith experiences are meant to be shared, not bottled up. Jesus says to Mary that life for her will come not just from remembering that experience, but also in sharing it with others.

To capture the bittersweet feeling of having to let go, and after much brainstorming, we decided to use the metaphor of a child catching and releasing a butterfly. If we selfishly hang on to old notions of spiritual highs, religion, church and faith, whether in personal devotion or in our church communities, we can starve them of life, to the point they are no good to anyone. But just like releasing a butterfly from a jar, if let go of them, we open ourselves up to new experiences – fresh, vital, risen Lord experiences.

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Come Home For Christmas

If you’d like to make this your theme for Christmas, check out the full resource here.